“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy began Anna Karenina; “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I think that sort of applies to the current slate of reality competition shows. Pretty much they all follow the same format: An “initial challenge” (reward on Survivor; quickfire on Top Chef, etc.) that typically comes with a built-in advantage; an elimination challenge (the heart of the competition), usually on a ridiculously tight schedule; judges sniping about why this gown made in 45 minutes completely out of trash bags is not runway-ready; then a panel where the winner is selected and the bottom three are singled out; interviews are sprinkled throughout with the contestants pointing out each others’ flaws.
The only thing missing from that description is the actual talent involved. That’s where Tolstoy comes in.
There are competition shows about hair-cutting, cooking, fashion designing, dancing, singing, extreme traveling and wilderness abilities; but none are more peculiar for a contest than making art. (Maybe writing a novel; the problem is, it would take years to film.)
It’s almost a boondoggle if you think about it: People’s taste may be subjective, but at least on Project Runway you’re weighing dress against dress; on Work of Art, starting its second season tonight, you might be comparing photos with sculpture with graffiti with performance art and painting. On Top Chef, contestants may literally be comparing apples and oranges, but here, it’s watermelons and race cars. If there is a more esoteric enterprise, I can’t imagine it.
Which is not to say Work of Art is a meaningless exercise, although even more than Nina Garcia, the taste levels of the judges are at least as puzzling as the execution of the contestants. When China Chow drones on that one artist’s style recalls Keith Haring, she acts as if there could be no greater insult to a gallerist than reminding someone of someone else. Since when did Michael Kors design a dress that didn’t have some predecessor in history?
The highfalutin nature of the show means that it really fits in the Bravo stated profile better than, say, any of the Real Housewives franchises (remember when Bravo had opera?). It challenges you a little to consider what art is, and how creativity is funneled in different ways. It’s a show meant for a sophisticated urban audience. (Sarah Jessica Parker is one of the producers, as if it could have been called Art and the City.) There’s a slightly self-congratulatory aspect to it, as if you feel more cultured in evaluating artists without the bother of going to an actual museum.
So how “unhappy” is this show? Artists are temperamental folks, and pretty arrogant, but part of the fun is seeing how their egos are shaped by the others’ around them; and even some of them allow their libidos to influence their styles and their affections for other contestant.
Work of Art is no better or worse than most competition series, but I do enjoy the creative process being given equal time to all the bad behavior on TV. If that’s patting myself on the back, so be it.
Premieres tonight on Bravo at 9 p.m.